The growing sophistication of phishers has left the majority of Americans unable to tell the difference between legitimate and scam e-mail, a survey released Wednesday showed.
Nearly a quarter of online people in the United States have found themselves the target of the online con artists, and roughly one in five knows a friend or family member who has been duped, according to the second annual survey by America Online Inc. and the National Cyber Security Alliance.
Pointing to the effectiveness of phishers, 70 percent of U.S. consumers receiving scam e-mails believed they might be from legitimate companies.
“Phishers are getting more adept at tricking consumers into revealing their bank account and personal financial information, and most Americans can't tell the difference between legitimate correspondence and the growing flood of scam e-mails that can lead to fraud and identity theft." Tatiana Platt, senior vice president and chief trust officer for AOL, said in a statement.
Adding to the problem is confusion over what phishing means. Only 42 percent of Americans are familiar with the term, and of those, just 57 percent can define it accurately, the survey found. Most phishing e-mail appears to come from banks, credit-card companies and other legitimate businesses.
Along with their confusion, the majority of U.S. consumers have failed to adequately protect their home PCs. More than 8 in 10 computers lack at least one of the three critical protections needed, updated anti-virus software, spyware protection and a secure firewall. Exacerbating the problem is the fact that 83 percent of the survey respondents believed that their computers were safe from online threats.
“We have a major perception gap problem," Ron Teixeira, executive director of National Cyber Security Alliance, said in a joint statement with AOL. "Even though most consumers think they are protected, our study shows quite the opposite."
U.S. households with wireless access weren't any better off. More than a quarter of the respondents had a wireless network, but nearly half failed to encrypt their connections, a safety precaution needed to protect against intruders.
On a positive note, the survey found that the percentage of households with properly configured firewalls jumped to 56 percent from 28 percent last year, due primarily to Microsoft Corp. rolling out a Windows XP SP2 update with a default-on firewall. Also, the percentage of home PCs with active spyware infections fell to 61 percent from 80 percent, and the ones with active viruses dropped to 12 percent from 19 percent.
Findings of the 2005 AOL-NCSA Online Safety Study were based on in-person interviews and technical analyses of PCs from a sample of 354 adult computer users with dial-up and broadband connections. The survey was conducted from Sept. 19 to Oct. 28.